GP workforce data from NHS Digital show that in March 2021 there were 28,096 full-time equivalent (FTE) fully-qualified GPs in England - an increase of 111 on the 27,985 that were in post at the same time a year ago.
However, the number of FTE partners has fallen by 5% over the same period from 17,910 in March 2020 to 17,003 in March 2021.
The rise in the fully-qualified workforce has been driven by a significant increase in salaried GPs, a trend GPonline highlighted when workforce data was published in November last year.
The number of salaried GPs grew by 10.2% in the 12 months to March 2021, from 8,671 to 9,560.
GP partners in freefall
However, the number of FTE partners has been in freefall since the workforce data was first published in this form in September 2015, when there were 21,688. The number of partners is now a staggering 21.6% lower than it was that point – a total of 4,685 FTE partners have been lost between September 2015 and March 2021.
Despite the increase in the workforce in the past year, the overall number of fully-qualified FTE GPs still remains 1,307 below the total recorded in September 2015, when former health secretary Jeremy Hunt made his now-infamous pledge to recruit 5,000 more GPs within five years.
The current government has committed to increasing the GP workforce by 6,000 by 2024/25, but the latest figures suggest that this could be an almost impossible task.
Dr Krishna Kasaraneni, BMA GP committee workforce lead, said: 'Today’s data is yet another stark reminder of the ongoing workforce crisis currently facing the NHS.
'The overall GP workforce has barely grown since 2015, and the number of GP partners has actually fallen by the equivalent of more than 900 full-time doctors in the most recent 12 months, so efforts to retain these experienced and talented members of staff should be treated with just as much importance as encouraging new GPs into the NHS.'
Doctors 'pushed to their limits'
A poll by the BMA earlier this week found that more than a third of UK GPs plan to retire early and many more intend to reduce their working hours in the coming year as heavy workloads and the pandemic take their toll.
'We know that much of this is linked to personal wellbeing - doctors across the NHS have been pushed to their limits this past year, with many struggling to get the respite they need following the demands of the pandemic,' Dr Kaserenani said. 'For some, this has led to them becoming unwell and feeling disillusioned with a job they once loved.
'The bottom line is that the GP workforce is simply not growing quickly enough to cope with current or future demand. Without the workforce we need, especially as we look to the growing backlog, the future of the NHS hangs in the balance – and patients will continue to wait too long for the care they need.
'It’s vital that government understands this; not only by recruiting more staff, but also urgently doing everything possible to retain those we already have.'